Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying at the scary, dysfunctional and outright stupid state of American politics these days. Luckily for us, a new podcast is trying to find the humor in the maelstrom.
“Let’s Get Civical,” hosted by New York City-based comedian Lizzie Stewart and gay political strategist Arden Walentowski, is equal parts civics class and comedy show. The duo is making it its mission to break down all the political action into easily understandable morsels.
Walentowski, also based in New York City, has worked in the office of U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and was chief of staff for the Jonathan Lewis campaign for Congress. She is also the cofounder of “Three Oracles,” a blog about the state of American democracy, which features an all-female writing team.
Walentowski spoke to PGN about what it is like to try to make sense of the hurricane of political insanity that is whirling around the country.
PGN: What kind of audience does “Let’s Get Civical” attract?
AW: In general, our audience members are progressive-leaning folks who want a little spice and hilarity with their civic education. We’re only about a month old, so we’re still getting to know and engage with our listeners and we’re loving every minute of it. Come find us on IG/Twitter @letsgetcivical. We want to know you!
PGN: What separates your podcast from the pack in regard to content and perspective?
AW: There are a lot of political podcasts out there these days. We’re different because we focus on the educational piece in our pod rather than current news or the latest political throw-down. We found that most political podcasts assume their listeners have a basic level of information that most Americans just don’t have, which can make major news events hard to follow. They also tend to play into their own ideological beliefs, and while Lizzie and I are upfront about the fact that we’re fairly left-leaning, we try not to let that run the show.
PGN: What political subjects aren’t getting enough attention and urgency these days?
AW: Real economic solutions to the problem of income inequality and the loss of the middle class, but particularly as it applies to millennials. As a group, we make cents on the dollar for the same jobs that our parents and folks in the age group above us had at our age, and yet the cost of living continues to rise at a crippling rate. It costs us more to get a college education, which is the bare minimum for most jobs these days. We often take out large, expensive educational loans, only to get a job after graduation that pays $30,000 per year. That’s not sustainable. There are a few things politicians and candidates could do to address this, but a good start would be real student-debt reform. This does not mean free public college. That is a separate problem. I’m talking about helping those of us with student-debt amounts so high that we’ll never have kids or own a house, and we fear that we won’t be able to pay rent. It’s a problem no one is addressing, and it’s time we address this bubble before it bursts.
PGN: Is it difficult to walk the line between being informative and being entertaining with the podcast?
AW: It’s definitely a fine line. We try to never sacrifice the info for the sake of a laugh because at the end of the day, the show is about civics. But luckily both Lizzie and I understand where the comedic moments are appropriate and where they take us off track. The entertaining moments help us connect with listeners and keep the show light and funny. We didn’t want this to be a podcast that lectures at you. I love NPR-type shows, but that’s not us. We wanted to make politics and government accessible for people and we think that’s easier to do when people are relaxed and having fun.
PGN: How have the challenges of being a gay political strategist changed in the last two years, and does podcasting help you in that field in any way?
AW: To be honest, I haven’t faced challenges for being a gay political strategist, and I am so grateful for that. I live in NYC and have had the great fortune of working for progressive candidates who hire diverse staff. As a podcaster working in politics, having to research topics and construct an episodic narrative has kept me on my toes in terms of staying on top of the news, and has helped me to be a better communicator and message creator.
PGN: What makes Lizzie Stewart the ideal cohost for you? Is politics something that is a big part of her style as a comedian?
AW: Lizzie is my rock, and the greatest collaborator I’ve ever had. We work and think in the same way. Sometimes we text each other the same thing at the same time. We’re always in step and listen to one another’s concerns without judgment. Lizzie isn’t a political comedian per se, but I think that’s one of the reasons we work so well. She’s whip-smart, and eager to learn about civics stuff she doesn’t already know. But, she also doesn’t hesitate to point out the ridiculousness of our government. Do not get her started on how awful government websites are. She will lose it!
PGN: Why are comedians and political commentators such perfect bedfellows in this day and age, and will the lines that separate the two ever become less blurry?
AW: No, I think they’ll only get blurrier. In our era of the 24-hour news cycle and large social media and communication platforms, the only way to stand out is to have a strong brand and personality. It’s no longer sufficient to be Walter Cronkite. You have to be Walter Cronkite, Ellen DeGeneres and Jim Jeffries all in one. This is why people like Bill Maher, Katy Tur and Rachel Maddow are so successful. Not only can they tell you about the news of the day and keep you informed, but they entertain you as well. You have to have an original voice or perspective. On the flip side, comedy loves a heightened, ridiculous situation, and what was more ridiculous than the Kavanaugh hearings?
PGN: What figures in politics and/or comedy do you find the most inspiring?
AW: I’m a big fan of Bill Maher. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I think he’s effective at calling out the left in moments when their idealism isn’t practical, and I love that. I also have a lot of respect for Jim Jeffries. I was a fan of his stand-up, and then he got his show on Comedy Central. It’s a type of voice we’ve been missing since the era of [Stephen] Colbert and [Jon] Stewart. He’s also taken stuff out of his stand-up that was degrading to women, which I don’t think should go unnoticed given that he’s a male comedian in the #MeToo era.
As for politicians, I love a woman who gets stuff done. I’m really inspired by Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris. I am excited about what they’ll propose policy-wise over the next year. We’ve seen debate stages full of men, but we’ve never seen a debate stage with majority women. I cannot wait to see a group of strong women debate the issues that matter to Americans.
PGN: So, is there anything going on politically that makes you hopeful? Or is American politics doomed to be a raging dumpster fire for the foreseeable future?
AW: Americans are engaged and listening. They’re watching their representatives and making their voices heard when they disagree with the politicians who they elected to speak their voice in Washington. That gives me some hope. In terms of a dumpster fire, I think we have to be careful when we talk to each other. If Americans demand a change in rhetoric from their elected officials, they’ll listen because they want to be re-elected. Not to say that that’s easy, I’m not naïve. But we have to change the way we talk to each other. Lizzie is from Texas and I’m from Ohio. We are both left-leaning Democrats, but we have Trump-supporting relatives. I’ve spent the last two years in various conversations with friends and family about politics — Trump, the economy, you name it. One thing I found early on is that you have to approach each conversation with an open mind and a will to listen. That’s the only way we’ll get out of this dumpster fire.
PGN: What do you hope people take away from listening to “Let’s Get Civical”?
AW: The news these days makes us so angry, but a lot of Americans don’t know what they’re angry at. The Electoral College sounds like a bad thing, but they don’t know much about it and don’t understand the structure. And that’s not their fault. American civic education is atrocious. We’re hoping our listeners walk away a little more informed with each episode and are better able to both engage in our democracy and talk with family members and friends about the issues that are important to them. And we hope they have fun doing it!